High-Tech Studio: The Golden Age Of Printing

The latest desktop professional printers are incredible machines—their output is astounding, and the amount of technology stuffed inside these relatively affordable little boxes is mind-boggling.

At a recent press briefing with Canon for the new imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer, the product managers talked about the 27 different temperature sensors inside the print head that communicate together to make sure ink flows consistently and without clogging. Epson product teams talked about their variable-droplet sizes on the SureColor SC-600 and how the print head can produce bubbles of ink as teeny as two picoliters, a droplet of ink so small as to be only visible under a microscope. Neither technology is visible, but both are part of the amazing inner workings of a printer.

Printers fall into the “you can’t judge a book by its cover” category, with the benign and unobtrusive exteriors housing a Willy Wonka collection of motors, pulleys, sensors and wires. You also can’t tell from surface looks exactly how precise a printer has to be. To create good-looking output, a printer has to suck in papers of various different thicknesses, widths and lengths, then move them forward at exactly the right rate in order to spray microscopic ink from thousands and thousands of individual nozzles.

These devices have to provide consistent output—print after print, day after day. And they have to be affordable enough for the average studio. That’s a pretty tall order.

Toward the end of 2015, both Epson and Canon updated their desktop photographic printer lines, introducing new models with new technologies. We put the newest devices, the Epson SureColor P600 and the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 through their paces, pitting them head to head in a variety of print tests.

The Epson P600 is the smaller of the two printers, outputting to sheets as large as 13×19” versus 17×22” for the Canon PRO-1000. Epson produces a 17×22” printer in the class, the P800, but we had already received the Epson P600 when the Canon PRO-1000 was introduced. Since the Epson P600 and the P800 largely share the same internals, I reviewed the Canon and Epson devices side by side, though I’ll note where the differences lie between the models.

Desktop Champions

The Epson P600 had a bit of a head start on the Canon PRO-1000, launching a few months before the Canon device. But Epson also has a head start in the market—they have been consistently producing a wide selection of excellent desktop-sized professional printers without a hitch for decades. Their main rivals, Canon and HP, haven’t been as visible as Epson, despite making some very solid devices. HP left the desktop photo printer market some time ago, leaving Epson and Canon to battle it out, and the smaller Canon photographic printers straddle the line between being consumer and pro devices.

Both companies have taken design cues from their consumer-grade printer divisions, integrating conveniences like full-color LCD screens for control of printer functions, complete with “Home” buttons and simplified WiFi printing configuration. It’s this wireless printing functionality that has me particularly excited, as it eliminates the clutter caused by running Ethernet cables around my studio just to reach my printer table, and the LCD screens make setup much easier than previous printers that either lacked LCD screens (and had to be set up via software) or had small, difficult-to-navigate displays.

Both printers look much more “modestly” designed now, as well, with black cases and understated, minimalist lines. Sticking with the traditional black exteriors usually found in professional camera gear suits these printers, too. The Canon PRO-1000 sports a red band around it, which Canon’s PR team and product managers seem especially proud of because, they say, it ties the printers into their pro lens lineup, which features the same detail.

No matter how svelte these printers are when closed, when printing they’re still awkward-looking, with expanding print trays and paper sticking out of the tops. Operating the printers takes considerable space as a result, especially if the rear manual-feed slots are used, since they require the same space behind the printer as the size of the paper itself. People who visit my office often think it’s odd that my printer sits perpendicular to the front of the table, but in reality, it’s the best way to access all the necessary components.

Both printers are simple to set up, and unpacking them and installing the ink cartridges takes about 10 minutes for each printer—mostly to remove the myriad pieces of tape holding the printers together. (I joked with a colleague that the main difference in setup is that Epson uses blue tape while Canon uses red.) The Canon’s print head isn’t pre-installed in the printer, adding an additional step. It also means that the PRO-1000 user can replace the print head should it become irreparably clogged.

Both printers represent the pinnacle of desktop printing technology for the respective companies, with their latest print heads, ink delivery systems, processors and paper management techniques. The Epson SureColor line replaces the long-running Stylus Pro printer product, while the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 merges the company’s consumer and professional products into a device with completely revised internals.

Specifications

The Epson SureColor P600 has a maximum resolution of 5760×1440 dpi and can create borderless prints on 13×19” media. It also has a roll paper adapter, which makes it particularly well adapted to the high-volume portrait or wedding studio.

Epson uses a nine-ink UltraChrome HD pigment ink configuration (photo black, matte black, cyan, vivid magenta, yellow, light cyan, vivid light magenta, light black, light light black) and can automatically switch between photo and matte black. The P600 shares the photo black and matte black channel, so some line cleaning is required between matte and glossy print jobs. The P600 uses 23ml cartridges, while the larger, 17×22”-capable P800 uses large 80ml cartridges.

The P600 produces ink droplets as small as 2 picoliters, while the P800’s smallest size is 3.5 picoliters, making it theoretically difficult to create the same sharpness as the P600, though at this picoliter size, it’s difficult to say how much sharper 1.5 picoliters gets you. Thanks to the multiple levels of black ink, the printer is an excellent choice for monochrome work.

Connectivity options abound on the P600, including the aforementioned WiFi connectivity, Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print (for printing straight from mobile devices), Epson Connect printing (for remote printing), USB 2.0 and Ethernet. Straight out of the box, the P600 can connect with any device in a modern studio, from tablet to tower.

The Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 has a maximum resolution of 2400×1200 dpi, and it can output borderless prints up to 17×22”. The printer uses the company’s new L-COA Image Processing engine and a 12-ink Lucia Pro pigment ink system. Those inks are matte black, photo black, cyan, magenta, yellow, photo cyan, photo magenta, gray, photo gray, red, blue and a Chroma Optimizer designed to reduce metamerism. Each of the inks, which come in 80ml tanks, has its own channel, so the PRO-1000 doesn’t need to purge ink between output to matte and photo papers.

The printer also has sensors in the print head that determine if one of the channels is clogged and replaces that channel with a surrounding one, eliminating the white coverage gaps that occur when a printer’s nozzles clog.

The PRO-1000 has a unique system for feeding and tensioning the paper under the print head—in addition to rollers, it uses vacuum suction to pull the paper into place. Canon claims this results in better print coverage, and it also allows those using thicker paper to create paper profiles that
account for the thickness of the material.

The PRO-1000 is rife with connectivity choices, including WiFi printing from computers, Apple AirPrint, wireless PictBridge printing, PIXMA Cloud Link, and the traditional USB 2.0 and Ethernet connectors.


Epson SureColor P600

Configuration and Image Quality

Both printers were relatively easy to configure and use, though, as has always been the case with photo printers, there were some hiccups. Once the inks were loaded, both printers took some time to charge the ink lines, during which time I took the opportunity to install the drivers.

As I don’t have a CD drive attached to any of the computers in my office, I downloaded the drivers online, which was easier to do with the Epson drivers than the Canon ones. The Epson SureColor P600 drivers are available from a link on the company’s product page on their website. I wasn’t able to locate the drivers on the Canon site, and instead turned to a site that hosts drivers for download for numerous types of computing devices. (The site is supportdrivers.info, and it’s a good bookmark to have.)

By the time the printers were charged, the drivers were installed and ready to go. For the first set of tests, I selected four images that would represent both common photographic subjects, as well as some things that are typically problematic for printers.

One image featured a Halloween costume with both bright orange colors and fine detail on the costume’s feathers. I was especially interested in testing this image because orange is a vibrant color that needs to be created in both printers through careful mixing of other colors, and is often a weak spot on less professional printers.

Another test image leaned heavily toward blue and green tones; one was a close portrait with detail and skin tones, and the final one was a very dark, but very detailed image.

This last one, taken in the predawn hours before the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, has become one of my favorites to use as a printer and monitor stress test. A photograph of a vendor of small children’s toys and stuffed animals, the image has multiple overlapping shadows across pavement, neon toys in the background and loads of detail, thanks to the resolution of the Canon EOS 5DS, which was used to capture the photo.

I had already printed this image at 13×19 on the Epson in my studio, and had printed this same photo at Canon’s media introduction of the PRO-1000, so I knew the printers both handled this level of shadow detail incredibly well when the print was large, but I wanted to see if they could pull it off at a smaller size.

In order to standardize on the paper surface, I used the professional-grade luster paper from each of the manufacturers with their respective printers. (I also verified the results later by printing on a third-party paper that had ICC profiles available for both devices.) Both devices were set first to their highest resolutions (2440×1400 for the Canon and 5760×1440 for the Epson) and prints were made with the printers set to the correct paper types, and any high-speed settings were disabled.

Once the prints came out, I let them dry for a bit and then shuffled them together. Since the Epson paper has branding on the back, it was easy to do a blind evaluation and verify my results. The prints were nearly identical, with color rendition and tonality the same across all the prints. At first, I wasn’t able to tell the printers apart, but side by side I noticed one set of prints had slightly darker blacks and ever so slightly sharper detail. Surprisingly, the denser blacks and slightly sharper images belonged to the Canon, even though the top resolution is lower than that of the Epson.

To test this a bit further, I printed out a number of the same images on the Epson at different resolutions and compared them. (I also asked my wife, who has better close vision than I have, to evaluate them.) There’s very little perceptible difference between prints. Color density and the contrast between regions are improved at 5760×1440, but to the naked eye, there’s very little difference.

I also printed multiple images at 13×19 on both printers and found the same results held true—the highest resolution of the Canon print just very slightly edged out the Epson print at its highest resolution.


Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000

Monochrome

Both companies advertise their printers as being excellent monochrome output devices. A few generation of printers ago, there was a huge aftermarket conversion business, with companies providing monochrome ink sets and printer profiles to replace the colored inks in printers like Epson’s original Stylus line. Companies like Canon and Epson reacted to this demand for monochrome output by adding more grayscale inks and improving their monochrome output algorithms and techniques.

Both the Epson SureColor P600 and the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 create tremendous monochrome output. I tested both true grayscale output and true black-and-white atonal images, and they all were impressive. The Canon output was a slightly deeper black by default, but I was able to tweak the Epson output in Photoshop to rival its performance.

Photographers who make their living off of grayscale printing can easily rely on either of these printers.

Studio Usage

No matter how far desktop photo printers have come, there’s still some frustration in getting them to switch between paper sizes or between different paper types—at some point, there’s some cursing and fiddling with buttons while trying to figure out why a job won’t print.

I won’t point fingers here, as both of the devices were equally vexing, but during one set of tests I cranked out a number of 8×10” prints with no issues. I then walked away for dinner, came back and tried to print again, and suddenly my Mac couldn’t connect to the printer even though it was still powered on and connected. It was visible to me, but when I tried to print, jobs just piled up. I had to cycle the power off and on, but I wondered what could have happened in the hour I was eating dinner to have caused the printer to suddenly vanish.

Printers fall into the “you can’t judge a book by its cover” category, with the benign and unobtrusive exteriors housing a Willy Wonka collection of motors, pulleys, sensors and wires.

Moments later, I tried to load a sheet of 13×19” paper into the other printer and was told repeatedly that there was no paper loaded while I stood there yelling at an inanimate object.

There’s also the confusion of how the PRO-1000 refers to their various paper-feeding mechanisms. The Canon PRO-1000 calls the slot on the top of the printer the rear tray, but the slot behind that on the actual rear of the printer is referred to as the manual feed tray.

The ability to wirelessly print from just about any device makes these printers more useful in the studio than any previous generation of devices. With the Canon printer, it would even be possible to print wirelessly straight from a Canon camera with wireless PictBridge in Canon cameras with WiFi connectivity built in.

Both printers are quieter than previous models, especially the Epson, which only emits a faint noise as the paper is advanced. The Canon model is also quiet, but in our tests, a fan was active during printing that’s louder (though not by much) than the Epson.

Conclusions

If you’re looking for a printer that produces 17×22” output, you’ll need to get the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-
1000, or the Epson SureColor P800, which produces the same size output.

If 13×19” output is all you need, the Epson SureColor P600 takes up less space than the larger Canon, naturally. The Epson line also has an available roll printer, which the Canon does not, so anyone looking to print to continuous rolls needs to pick up the Epson.

There’s only a mild price difference between the devices, as well. The Canon printer currently has a retail price of around $1,300 versus $1,200 for the Epson P800. The smaller Epson P600 is a bargain at $800. The Epson 80ml ink cartridges for the P800 are about $55, while the 80ml cartridges for the Canon PRO-1000 run about $60.

The Canon and Epson printers produce absolutely incredible images. Today’s photographer would be well served with any of these devices, and they make better images, by far, than printers of just a few years ago. Whether output is for client delivery, gallery use or simply to evaluate one’s images, these printers are a fantastic investment.

The Paper Chase

If you’re only using your printer manufacturer’s paper, you’re missing a world of incredible printing possibilities

The sample pack of paper that came with your printer usually provides a great selection of paper from the manufacturers, but that doesn’t mean you should stick with just the professional glossy paper in the package. It’s no secret that the printer manufacturers don’t actually make their own paper, though they do specify the characteristics and the coatings for their sheets to optimize them for their devices.

There are a number of notable paper manufacturers that don’t come bundled in printer boxes that provide excellent image quality across a wide range of surfaces and thicknesses. There are also some specialty papers from the printer companies that often escape notice.

Here are some of our favorite papers for truly breathtaking output, though these companies all offer a whole host of excellent papers.

Red River 68lb. UltraPro Satin 4.0
The company’s best-selling paper, UltraPro Satin 4.0 is designed to feel like a traditional photo lab print, with a toothy semigloss coating, and the new formulation gives it a brighter white base. UltraPro Satin 4.0 is heavier than most inkjet paper at 270 grams, which gives it a great feel, and it’s particularly well suited to black-and-white prints. Sizes: 4×6” through 13×28” sheets, plus rolls redrivercatalog.com

Moab Juniper Baryta Rag 305
Moab by Legion’s Juniper Baryta Rag 305 is a 100% cotton paper that uses barium sulfate—oddly called baryta in the industry—to whiten the paper instead of optical whitening chemicals that are thought to lead to print fading. Moab’s double-weight paper has a coating designed for inkjet output and that keeps the droplets of ink from spreading to neighboring regions. The result is a paper that has the best characteristics of a heavy rag paper, but the resolving power of a modern photo paper. Sizes: 5×7” through 17×22” sheets, plus rolls moabpaper.com

Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta
Another great barium-sulfate paper, Hahnemühle’s 315g Photo Rag Baryta is a museum-quality archival paper that has a modernly formulated photographic surface. The result is a heavy, impressive paper that produces razor-sharp images, and it’s often used for everything from gallery exhibits to greeting cards. Sizes: Photo cards, A4 through 17×22” sheets, plus rolls hahnemuehle.com

Epson Metallic Photo Paper
Epson’s metallic line of papers provides a silver-like finish that adds depth and vibrancy to a range of images—most particularly, monochrome prints. Fine artists, portrait photographers and wedding photographers have long turned to metallic papers to help bring out the best in a portrait, and the Epson line—which includes Glossy and Luster—offers great sharpness and dynamic range, something that’s hard to do on a metallic surface. Sizes: 8.5×11” through 17×22” sheets, plus rolls epson.com

Canson Infinity Rag Photographique
This 100% cotton paper from Canson comes in two weights, 210g or 310g, to suit different output needs. The museum-quality paper has a bright, white surface the company says is due to “natural minerals” added during manufacturing (we think it’s probably barium sulfate) and has a very high-rated Dmax (the level of “black” possible), making it an excellent choice for delivery to clients or for fine-art photographers hanging exhibitions. Sizes: A4 through 35×46.75” sheets, plus rolls canson-infinity.com/en

Innova FibaPrint Warm Cotton Gloss
Innova doesn’t have a name as well known as some others, but many exhibition printers use them regularly. While most of the 100% cotton papers on the market use brighteners, the Innova FibaPrint Warm Cotton Gloss has none, which gives it a darker tone that’s well suited to monochrome work. The inkjet surface coating is well integrated into the paper’s texture, so ink doesn’t look too shiny or reflective on the surface. Sizes: A4 through 17×22” sheets, plus rolls innovaart.com

Museo Silver Rag
Based on the name, you might think that Museo Silver Rag is a metallic paper, but it’s actually a rag cotton paper with no optical brighteners. The paper has a very good Dmax and a wide gamut thanks to its semigloss coating. It’s another paper that’s great for monochrome images, but stands up well to vibrant color photos, too, when super-white paper isn’t desired. Sizes: A4 through 35×47” sheets, plus rolls museofineart.com

Ilford Galerie Prestige Smooth Pearl
Ilford, one of the biggest names in the darkroom era, now produces a line of well-regarded photo papers, many of which have a remarkably similar feel to their chemical-process papers. The Galerie Prestige Smooth Pearl paper has the company’s latest optical clear
coat for very sharp images, with a wide color range. This paper dries instantly, and is resistant to fingerprints and smudges, making it good for clients who are going to manhandle the images. Sizes: 4×6” through 17×22” sheets, plus rolls ilford.com

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